Thursday, February 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Norwegian heritage makes headlines at Ballard paper

Seattle Times staff reporter

State residents of Scandinavian heritage

Danish 72,098; 1.2% of population

Finnish 40,290; 0.7%

Norwegian 367,508; 6.2%

Swedish 213,013; 3.6%

In the Seattle-Bellevue area today:

Norwegian: 163,074

Source: Census 2000

Other facts

• By 1910, Scandinavians were the largest ethnic group in Washington, constituting more than 20 percent of the foreign-born population. In Seattle, they amounted to 31.3 percent.

• By 1960, there were twice as many Norwegians as Swedes in Seattle, a trend that continues today.

• In Washington, 367,508 people — or 6.2 percent of the total population (5.8 million) — claim Norwegian heritage.


At a cramped office in Ballard, where another edition of Seattle's oldest ethnic newspaper was about to go to press, the story of the year had broken weeks earlier but was still posted on the front door and still making headlines in the weekly Western Viking: The first potential monarch to be born on Norwegian soil in more than 700 years had been born to the crown prince and princess of Norway.

Editor and publisher Kathleen Hjordis Knudsen, Seattle-born but very much Norwegian, scanned the galleys for typos, marked last-minute bloopers with blue ink and answered phone calls, including one from a reader in Iowa complaining that his neighbor didn't get a previous edition.

"Your neighbor?" replied Knudsen, 42.

"Ja!" he said angrily. "And I read it!"

By 3 p.m., the Western Viking, a 115-year-old weekly tabloid filled with news and features of interest to Norwegians near and far, was off to press. By the next morning, it was aboard all SAS flights leaving Seattle. It was in the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the mail to homes throughout the United States and seven other countries and available at local newsstands and stores in Ballard.

The oldest Norwegian newspaper in the United States and one of eight ethnic papers in Seattle, the Western Viking — circulation 3,000 — ties its subscribers back to the fjords and mountains of Norway.

Knudsen, who grew up in the heart of Seattle's Scandinavian community when Stan Boreson had a music store on Northwest Market Street in Ballard, has always known her roots and sees the Western Viking as a vehicle for helping others find and keep theirs.

"While others say, 'My family came from Norway, but I don't know where,' for me the knowledge was always there," she said. "I always had a whole community of parents and grandparents in the close-knit Norwegian community."

At Olsen's Scandinavian Foods on Northwest Market Street, Norwegian Americans can buy a copy of the Western Viking along with their lefse or pickled herring and settle back and read it over kaffe at the Scandinavian Bakery on Northwest 15th Street.

"I read it; even though I am now a citizen, I am still very much Norwegian," Berit Rolland, of Mukilteo, said recently as she was leaving the bakery, a loaf of cardamom bread under her arm.

At Scandinavian Gifts on Northwest Market Street, co-owner Sverre Hatley, who moved to the United States 50 years ago, sat behind the counter as accordion music rang through the store. He had already read the newspaper cover to cover the day it came out. "There aren't too many papers like it around," he noted. "It's kind of nice to have."

News from home and abroad

While its front page is devoted to news from Norway — a ski racer's plans to compete in an Arctic race, power-generating windmills to be installed on the Norwegian coast — the Western Viking also runs local and national news, from lutefisk dinners in Ballard to May festivals in Omaha, Neb.

The newspaper was started by two Norwegian immigrants in 1889 as the Washington Posten to help Norwegian immigrants ease into the new world.

Over the decades, it changed hands many times before Henning Boe purchased it in 1959, desiring to keep Norwegian pride alive in the Seattle area and beyond.

Now 89, Boe would not have come to the United States had it not been for World War II.

He was a young man when a barge was blown up in a Norwegian harbor. He was arrested and spent three months in a Nazi prison, later seeking escape from his memories by moving to the United States in 1951 and buying the newspaper eight years later.

Boe moved the office from downtown to Ballard, began to use more English than Norwegian in the newspaper and bought the Decorah-Posten of Iowa, then the largest Norwegian newspaper in the United States. He bought several other newspapers and changed the name to the more-regional Western Viking.

A champion of Norwegian pride, Boe, through his influence as publisher, promoted the May 17 Constitution Day parade in Ballard, which became one of the largest celebrations of its kind in the nation.

But his health began to fail, and in 1990, he sold the paper to a retired Seattle music teacher, Alf Knudsen, who once played with the prestigious Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and is so devoted to his heritage that he sent his three U.S.-born children to school in Norway.

Though Knudsen had no newspaper background and was more familiar with sheet music than with ad rates and picas, he put together a corporation, mainly of local Norwegian Americans, to buy the Western Viking.

"There are all sorts of other ethnic newspapers here. Not having Norway ... represented among them" didn't seem right, said Knudsen.

The Western Viking, which has a staff of four and is printed primarily in English, became his family's passion.

His daughter, Kathleen Knudsen, became publisher when he retired in 1997. With her blue eyes, Norwegian wool sweaters and ability to speak the language, Knudsen embodies Norwegian culture.

A 1979 graduate of Ingraham High School, Knudsen speaks Norwegian with her family and has mastered the Hardanger seam, an intricate type of needlework.

She likens the paper's role in reflecting changes in the community to the role of Norway's King Harald. "If he focused on the well-known old ways — the lutefisk, the lefse and the Hardanger fiddle — he wouldn't be an effective leader," she said. "In the same sense, if Western Viking focused only on the old traditions, we'd miss everything about what modern Norway is today."

She had been working for an engineering firm when her father bought the newspaper, and though she had no journalism background, she hopes her work ethic and passion for her culture transcend a lack of training.

She has been gratified to see the newspaper gaining new readers and is determined to keep it vibrant.

Community booster

Over the years, the paper has celebrated Norwegian Americans and advocated for their contributions, backing construction of Norway Center, Leif Erikson Hall and Norse Home in Ballard.

It has publicized the activities of the Norwegian Men's Chorus — still a thriving group — provided an advertising venue for Norwegian businesses that flourished in Ballard, and when wars came, brought news from Norway seldom carried in other newspapers.

Norwegian pride still flourishes here — in second and third generations that fill Norwegian classes at Ballard's Scandinavian Language Institute, shop at Olsen's for the same foods their parents and grandparents ate and subscribe to the Western Viking.

As she prepares for an upcoming edition, Kathleen Knudsen surveys news releases from the Sons of Norway, reviews stories about Norwegian politics and the usual quirky offerings from one of Norway's major dailies, Aftenposten — about a dog that robbed a service station, about a prisoner who ate forks.

She grins at the stories and at the ones she was told as a child: how her father steamed sausages in a hat press during World War II and how, if she wasn't a good girl, the trolls would come and steal her away. Sometimes at the end of the day, she looks toward the mountains and thinks of those stories.

And every Tuesday, when the paper hits the stands, the cycle begins anew: Another story. Another deadline, another edition, reaching out to another generation.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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